Is King Arthur buried in Scotland?

Yarrow Stone

The Yarrow Stone (Photo © B Keeling)


The answer to this question is Yes, at least according to Damian Bullen of Edinburgh, whose thoughts on the topic have been reported fairly widely in recent days. He thinks Arthur’s grave-marker is the Yarrow Stone, an Early Christian monument standing in the valley of the River Yarrow near Selkirk. A number of Scottish newspapers have picked up on his theory, two of these being the Daily Record and the Southern Reporter.

The Yarrow Stone is one of the most important ancient monuments in Scotland. It bears a Latin inscription, probably carved in the early 6th century, commemorating the princes Nudus and Dumnogenus (‘Nudd’ and ‘Dyfnyen’), two sons of Liberalis. Nothing else is known about these people but they belonged to a prosperous ‘royal’ family that had been Christian for at least a generation. The names of the deceased show that they were Britons or, more precisely, that their family favoured the use of Brittonic names rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic ones. Liberalis (‘Generous’) presumably held land and authority in the Yarrow Valley.

There is no mention of Arthur in the inscription, nor is there any obvious reason to connect him with the stone. Hence, not everyone agrees with Mr Bullen’s view that it marks the grave of the historical figure behind the legends. Simon Stirling, author of the forthcoming book The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, is rightly sceptical of the Yarrow theory and has his own views on Arthur’s true identity. Simon supports the idea that the historical Arthur was really Artúr of Dál Riata, a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. On his blog he offers an alternative location for the burial-place and will no doubt say more about it in his book. In the meantime, I recommend Michelle Ziegler’s comprehensive study of Artúr mac Áedáin in the Arthurian-themed first issue of The Heroic Age. Dál Riata is also the setting for another ‘Historical Arthur’ candidate, as explained in an interesting blogpost by Mak Wilson.

Another note of caution on Mr Bullen’s theory is sounded by Melissa Snell who, like me, prefers to keep an open mind on the question of Arthur’s historicity. After discussing the Yarrow idea, Melissa adds a summary of her own views: ‘Arthur may have existed — I have never denied the possibility. But until some real, physical, unequivocal, archaeological or documentary evidence comes to light that supports his existence, I must continue to tell you We don’t know.’ More of Melissa’s wise words can be found in an older post entitled The Truth of Arthur.

It’s always interesting to see what local historians think of a new theory relating to their area. Selkirk-based Walter Elliot, well-known for his research on the Roman fort of Newstead (Trimontium), was reported by the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser as saying: ‘Mr Bullen has certainly researched the Yarrow Stone and the various stories about Arthur very well. Whether the two can be joined together is a matter of question.’ Walter’s comments appear in a longer article which can be found via this link.

Historic Scotland also reserve judgment on the matter: ‘The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) records indicate that ‘the Yarrow Stone was set up to mark the grave of two British Christian chieftains. It dates from the early 6th century and falls into place in the early Christian series more richly represented in Wales and Cornwall.’ As such, we certainly believe it is of national importance.’ This quote is from an article in Archaeology Daily News.

I can’t see many people being convinced by Mr Bullen’s theory. On the other hand, I do think he might be on the right track when he suggests that the name Dumnogenus means ‘born of the Dumno’ in the sense of ‘member of the Dumnonii’. The latter were a people of Devon and Cornwall who gave their name to the early medieval kingdom of Dumnonia. A Roman map shows a similar name Damnonii on the western side of the Forth-Clyde isthmus around what is now the Greater Glasgow urban area. If, as seems likely, Damnonii is a misprint for Dumnonii, then the ancient Glasgwegians and their Cornish compatriots belonged to two geographically-separated groups who happened to bear the same name. If the prince Dumnogenus/Dyfnyen buried at Yarrow was given this name because he was a member of a northern Dumnonian gens then we might envisage the territory of this people extending a considerable distance southward and eastward of Glasgow. This seems broadly consistent with later evidence (or a very strong hint, at least) that the kingdom of Strathclyde – the presumed successor of the Damnonii or Dumnonii – encompassed Teviotdale and other tributary valleys of the Tweed in the 10th and 11th centuries. The River Yarrow eventually flows into the Ettrick Water which itself joins the Tweed near Selkirk. Perhaps the native inhabitants of this area considered themselves ‘Dumnonian’ in post-Roman times as well as answering to Clyde-based kings five centuries later?

Postscript: I discuss the Yarrow Stone and its historical context on pp.34-5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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54 comments on “Is King Arthur buried in Scotland?

  1. badonicus says:

    For something that is really a stretch of the imagination, Mr Bullen is certainly getting a lot of coverage.

    (Thanks for the mention and link).

  2. Clas Merdin says:

    It seems every couple of years or so someone comes along claiming to have found Arthur’s grave, and here we go again. I really can’t see the connection between the Yarrow Stone and Arthur.
    i suppose it all depends on whether one believes in the historical Arthur or not – you can’t have a grave for someone who never existed.

  3. esmeraldamac says:

    My husband remarked to me, ‘why do people who want to relocate Arthur always find him in their back garden?’. I’ll be happier with new theories when, for example, it’s a Glastonbury person saying he’s in Scotland, or a Scot saying he’s in Yorkshire.

    To me, the very fact that there are so many possible candidates for Arthur demonstrates that there is no actual Arthur amongst them. But a lot of people who were doubtless heroic and influential in their time; it seems a shame we can’t celebrate them for what we know they were based on the evidence, rather than forever trying to make them something they’re not.

    • Tim says:

      Your husband has indeed spotted the big flaw in a lot of the Arthur theories. Wishful thinking by local historians can be traced back to the antiquarians of the 1700s who wanted to put Arthur in the hillforts they could see from their own windows. Quaint, but not very helpful to our understanding of post-Roman Britain. The truth of the matter, as all serious historians now accept, is that Arthur and his knights lie asleep in a cave on Alderley Edge ;)

      I agree wholeheartedly with your second point about giving other heroic figures a fair share of the limelight, especially the ones whose historical existence is not in doubt. This is why I was pleased to see Urien Rheged getting a 9-page spread in James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland. The same book leaves Arthur out of the historical picture because, unlike Urien, he has no legitimate place in it.

  4. Reading over this again I have to wonder about the name Liberalis and the common epithet of Strathclyde kings – like Rhydderch the Generous. Interesting a king with a name of a common Strathclyde epithet and a son whose name may be related to the Dumnonians. Makes the mind wander….

    • Tim says:

      This is one of the most interesting aspects of the inscription. Is Liberalis simply a Latinisation of Hael? Or, to use a literary example….If Adomnan had identified Rhydderch Hael by an epithet rather than by a patronym would he have written Rodercus Liberalis instead of Rodercus filio Tothail?

      It gets even more puzzling when we start thinking about a possible connection between the Yarrow stone’s Prince Nudus and the mysterious Nudd Hael who seems to have been active in North Britain c.550-600.

      My own view is that the names Nudus, Dumnogenus and Liberalis are all pseudo-Latinisations of vernacular personal names, created by whoever devised the wording of the inscription – presumably a local priest. By this reasoning, Liberalis represents a Brittonic personal name rather than an epithet. I don’t know enough about the bestowing of names in this period so I’m not sure if a newborn child would be given Hael (or some older form of it) as a personal name. Latin liberalis can also mean ‘courteous’ which might be represented in Brittonic by something like Modern Welsh mwyn, but here I’m getting way out of my comfort zone.

      What we really need is a specialist in Brittonic languages to offer an informed opinion. I just end up going round in circles with all these Nudds and Haels :)

      • Damo says:

        Hello Tim… I’ve been reading your comments with interest, & then re-read the inscriptions original latin – it actually reads PER NUDI DUMNOGENI – which translates as ‘quite naked Dumnonians’ – the I elements are masculine plurals

        As for the Liberalis/Generous point, there is this Welsh Triad;

        Three Generous Men of the Island of Britain:

        Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt,
        Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan,
        Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd.
        And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for visiting, Damo.

          The translation you propose is one I’ve not encountered before. My instinctive response is to ask why a Christian memorial would refer to ‘naked Dumnonians’, a phrase that seems rather incongruous in a Christian context …..an image perhaps more appropriate to pagan beliefs??

          • Damo says:

            The Latin is;

            Nudo – to make naked, bare, to strip a person of his wealth (implying material possessions such as arms & armour)

            I think when placed on a tombstone it would be a deterrent to grave robbers – of course I might be wrong, but it fits the Annales Cambrae entry so well;

            537 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell

            When the stone says ‘two famous princes,’ you really can’t get much more famous than this pair!

            • Tim says:

              But why would any robber assume a Christian grave was worth plundering? Christian burials were characterised by a lack of grave goods, even if the deceased was a person of royal lineage. Armour and weapons might be expected in high-status pagan graves, but surely not in Christian ones?

              • Damo says:

                There’s nothing to suggest a Christian burial on the stone – no symbolism or religious wording. The stone was also surrounded by 20 burial cairns – it seems the victors of the battle were pagan. I think they were probably the Angles. Within a decade or so, Ida had set up his dynasty in Bernicia only a couple of days march from Selkirk.

      • I haven’t seen the text of the inscription and I’m going by memory so maybe this will be non-sense. What if it meant Nudd of the Dumnonii son of Generousity. The whole thing is a title or flattery for Nudd. A lot of this probably is determined by the order of the words and how ‘son of’ is written. Why do we think he/they were princes and not a king?

        If the inscription is as Damo says below perhaps Nudd Dumnogeni is basically Nudd Dumnonii like Maelgwyn Gwynedd or Clydno Eden.

        • badonicus says:

          My linguist friend who knows such things – or certainly more than me – tells me that that Dumnogeni may have nothing to do with the Dumnonii. He thinks that if the tribal name Dumnonii was used as the initial part of a personal name, it should be Dumnonio-, not Dumno-. The root *dumno-/dubno- “deep; domain/realm” being a common element in Celtic personal names, found in Britain, Ireland and on the Continent.

          • Tim says:

            Damo: There isn’t much doubt about the Christian aspect. A Latin inscription in post-Roman Britain indicates an ecclesiastical presence in the locality, either by recent missionaries or via a well-established church or monastery. A very useful study of the wider regional context of the Yarrow Stone is this paper from 7 years ago:
            Katherine Forsyth, ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the early inscribed stones of Southern Scotland in context’, pp.113-34 in S. Foster & M. Cross (eds) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Leeds, 2005).

            Michelle: The inscription is usually interpreted as referring to the ‘famous princes’ Nudus and Dumnogenus. Your idea about a territorial epithet looks plausible to me, but I’m no expert on languages (or epithets). The verdict of a Latin specialist would be useful on this point.

            Mak: Interesting: Seems to raise the possibility of a separate people called the Dumnogeni?

            • Damo says:

              Hi Tim… even if it was a Christian burial, that still does not take away from the fact that the inscription reads ‘quite made naked (plural)’ – per nudi. Perhaps it was meant to indicate they were the defeated party, i.e. stripped of both weapons & power. There is something about this stone that reeks of remarkability & I don’t think it can be compared to other monuments of the era, none of which were discovered at a known battlefield. War creates unique situations & the Yarrow stone is certainly a unique piece, where the normal ‘rules’ of historians musing 1500 years later don’t apply. I believe we have to think outside the box on this one

              • Tim says:

                I certainly agree with you, Damian, about the Yarrow stone being unique and remarkable. For me, this is as much about geographical context as purpose or message. I think it’s very positive, btw, that this monument has been given a burst of publicity as a direct result of your theory about Arthur. The stones of Southern Scotland don’t usually get a fair share of the limelight, partly because most (Whithorn excepted) are not promoted to tourists, but also because tourists usually want to see the Pictish stuff. The southern stones tend to get bypassed most of the time. As Buannan says in his comment below, ‘anything that raises the profile of our ancient monuments has to be a good thing’.

                I don’t agree with your point about the normal ‘rules’ of modern historians being inapplicable here. I think we ignore these rules at our peril. Without them, I fear we slide back to the romantic musing of the 18th and 19th centuries, to an era when all kinds of unsustainable theories were tossed around without regard to historical credibility. There is, of course, no obligation to play history by the ‘rules’ but anyone who ditches the rulebook cannot expect to be taken seriously. In any case, thinking outside the box is now the norm among professional historians and, using early medieval Scotland as an example, this type of approach is continually opening up new ways of understanding the period. The study of warfare is part of this evolution (or revolution), as I discovered a decade ago after spending six long years deeply immersed in it. What I wrote back then, all neatly bound into a hefty tome, now seems obsolete on a number of levels. Things are moving along pretty fast these days, often as a result of new research on the Picts.

                Returning to the Yarrow stone, I’m intrigued by your belief that it stands on a ‘known battlefield’. How confident can we feel about this? I’ve not explored the folklore of the area so I’m a bit in the dark, although I’m aware of a few suggestive place-names like Warrior’s Rest. I do however have a particular interest in old tales about battles (and once wrote a brief article about one from Cumbria) so I’d be interested to track down the sources of any battle-stories relating to the Yarrow valley.

  5. […] Clarkson of Senchus writes about the latest theory placing Arthur in Scotland. Tim also has s a new blog named Heart of the Kingdom on the early medieval cultural center of […]

  6. David Hillman says:

    Is it the same name as the Scottish Domnal?

    • Tim says:

      Hello David. The first element in these two names is indeed the same (Brittonic dumno, ‘world’) but the second element makes them different. It seems likely that Gaelic Domnall is simply a borrowing from Brittonic Dumnagual which evolved from earlier Dumno-valos, ‘world ruler’. From Domnall (pronounced Dovnal) we then get modern Irish Donal as well as Scottish Donald. From Dumnagual we get Welsh Dyfnwal (pronounced Duv-noo-al). All of these mean the same thing, but Dumnogenus/Dumnogenos seems to contain gen- which is associated with birth or origin. It’s a similar name to Brittonic Orbogenos from which we get the later forms Urbagen/Urbgen and eventually Welsh Urien. In the above post I give Dyfnyen as a hypothetical Welsh form of Dumnogenus, i.e. how the name might have appeared in later Welsh poetry if a bard had composed heroic verses about the sons of Liberalis.

      Related to this is an older blogpost where I looked at the origins of Domnall and Dyfnwal in the context of the place name Dundonald (a castle in Ayrshire).

      • badonicus says:

        Just for your interest Tim. This is from an inscribed stone in Powys (St David’s Church, Trallwng (Trallong), Brecknock):

        Transcription: CVNOCENNIFILIV[–] | CVNOGENIHICIACIT

        Reading: CVNOCENNI FILIVS CVNOGENI HIC IACIT

        Translation: Of Cunocennius, son of Cunogenus, he lies here

        • Tim says:

          Not sure if I’ve heard of this stone before. I imagine it’s quite an early one, maybe contemporary with Yarrow. The names look similar to the name of the 9th-century Powys king Cyngen ap Cadell who appears on Eliseg’s Pillar as ‘Concenn’.

          • badonicus says:

            Here are the dates Tim:

            400–533 (Nash-Williams 1950)
            500–550 (Jackson 1953)

            • Tim says:

              This stone gets more and more interesting, Mak. Just looked it up in Jackson 1953 and it turns out to be a bilingual inscription, with the Irish equivalent of the name Cunocennus inscribed in Ogam. There’s even a tenuous link with the North Britons: the Ogam inscription ends with ILVVETO, an unintelligible word or phrase which Jackson says ‘has been identified with Elmet, which is more than doubtful’.

              • badonicus says:

                I’d probably go along with Jackson on the doubtful Elmet reference.

                What the stone does demonstrate clearly is the Cunogenus personal name in keeping with the Dumnogenus one. (They certainly liked there ‘hounds’ in this region, didn’t they!).

  7. Buannan says:

    I was led to believe that the borders Arthur and his warriors lay sleeping in the hollow under the Eildon hills?

    http://uk.ask.com/wiki/Eildon_Hill

    Mr Bullen obviously doesn’t think so, but I’m sticking with Eildon. Yet another height, complete with ancient hill fort, associated with Arthur.

    Still, anything that raises the profile of our ancient monuments has to be a good thing.

    • Tim says:

      It’s interesting that the Eildon story told by Sir Walter Scott is identical to the one from Alderley Edge in Cheshire (featured in Alan Garner’s famous book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen). I suspect these are not the only two that fit the same template (mysterious old man buys horse, knights sleeping in cave, etc).

      • badonicus says:

        HI Tim, I posted the following a long time ago in your blog about ‘Gwen Ystrad and Catraeth’, it may or may not be useful here:

        Just to give some defence to the cat=battle argument (no pun intended), it’s worth mentioning the Yarrow Stone (also known as the Liberalis Stone) at Yarrow Kirk, eight miles west of Selkirk. Thought to date c.550AD, upon it is the inscription:

        This is the everlasting memorial
        In this place lie the most famous prince Nudus and Dumnogenus
        In this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis

        To its northwest is Dead Lake, where tradition says there is a mass warrior grave. Close by is a standing stone and old cottage both with the name ‘Warrior’s Rest’ and it’s around the ‘Yarrow Stone’ and the ‘Warrior’s Rest’ stone we find Cat Craig, Catslackburn, Catslack Knowe and Cat Holes.

        (Sources: Arthur & The Lost Kingdom by Alistair Moffat 1999, BBC Radio 4 ‘Making History’ 29th April 2008, The Modern Antiquarian)

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for this, Mak. It prompted me to see what Alistair Moffat says in his book The Faded Map (I don’t have the Arthur one). Alistair mentions the Yarrow Stone on p.42 and gives the conventional translation of the inscription. He suggests that Liberalis is Rhydderch Hael and wonders if Nudus and Dumnogenus were not his sons but his underkings.

          Earlier in the same book (p.7) Alistair refers to a portion of the Catrail in the Yarrow valley. He says the earthwork is here called ‘Wallace’s Trench’ which he interprets as ‘Welshman’s Trench’, i.e. a frontier between Britons and Anglo-Saxons:

          ‘part of the long boundary between a developing English-speaking culture to the east and an ancient Celtic speech surviving in the hills to the west.’

          This seems to fit with Damian’s suggestion (see above) of a battle between Britons and Angles near the Yarrow Stone. It’s a pity the Catrail is so mysterious. If we knew more about its age and purpose we could put it in some kind of context but it’s a blind alley at the moment.

          Does Alistair say more about the Dead Lake and the battle tradition in his Arthur book?

      • Buannan says:

        I’ve heard the same said of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

        It is intriguing despite the possibility that these associations with Arthur to specific locations around the country may have been planted retrospectively, at the hands of later writers such as Scott or the likes of the earlier Geoffrey inspired romantics, there maybe some genuine lingering folk tradition attached to some of these sites. Especially old hill forts.

        That a figure such as Arthur may be attached shouldn’t surprise. Whilst Scott reinvented and blended history & fiction to his whim, and with no small critical acclaim, there’s no reason to assume him capable of transplanting non indigenous tradition and presenting it as such, not with such an enthusiastic and avid local audience.

        Of course having Arthurs active, planted or otherwise, in the folk memory over such a wide area of mainland britain doesn’t bode well for a historical figure, who’s supposed to have existed in a highly fragmented dark age patchwork of warring independent principalities and kingdoms.

        Bodes well for a common composite mythical character who heads a semi divine warband comprised of ancestors and ancestral divinities, working in the common interest between this world and the next. Protecting the boundaries from supernatural danger and raiding the underworld for marvelous spoils, a supernatural extension of the endemic practice of the age, ritual raiding by the heroic elites.

        The association with Fionn to known irish lughnasa fairs and locations, usually heights or springs that attract(ed) annual gatherings, is well enough established. Whilst these pagan gathering soon lost the pagan badge early on, the gatherings persisted as did many of the associated myths & legends, right down to the present.

        400 years of radical protestant revisionism has taken it’s toll on the mainland, especially scotland where papist book burning and correction was conducted with particular zeal. A look at traditional british lamas fair locations (the british harvest equivalent to the irish lughnasa) and analysis of remaining local folklore with identified locations could pay dividends in sorting the planted from the traditional, in terms of genuine tradition. If Arthur were to feature somewhere in the landscape near to or at, former sites of british lamas fairs/gatherings it wouldn’t surprised me in the least.

        Mr Bullen seeks to locate Arthurs grave to a place associated with, as badonicus says above:

        “To its northwest is Dead Lake, where tradition says there is a mass warrior grave. Close by is a standing stone and old cottage both with the name ‘Warrior’s Rest’ and it’s around the ‘Yarrow Stone’ and the ‘Warrior’s Rest’ stone we find Cat Craig, Catslackburn, Catslack Knowe and Cat Holes.”

        …. dead warriors. Why didn’t Scott think of that? I suspect Scott had a body of local folklore to work with, a known foundation for his own narratives certainly helped sell his work.

  8. Tim says:

    Mak, I’ll be looking forward to the blogpost too. It will be interesting to see how the ‘Man or Myth’ topic gets dealt with from the Dark Side :)

    Buannan made a very useful observation:

    ‘Of course having Arthurs active, planted or otherwise, in the folk memory over such a wide area of mainland britain doesn’t bode well for a historical figure, who’s supposed to have existed in a highly fragmented dark age patchwork of warring independent principalities and kingdoms. Bodes well for a common composite mythical character who heads a semi divine warband comprised of ancestors and ancestral divinities, working in the common interest between this world and the next.’

    This chimes neatly with my own views and I’d be interested to hear a counter-argument.

  9. damo says:

    Just a note on Badonicus’s interpretation of the Cunocennius stone – The Cunogenus probably means ‘The Sons of Cunedda.’ Ceneu was said to be a grandson of Cunedda, & he would be Cunocennius. Interestingly, the stone was found by a church, & only a few miles away there is a Saint Ceneu’s church at Llangeneu. The translation would then be – Cunocennius, of the Sons of Cunedda.

    • badonicus says:

      I’m not sure how you can interpret that to mean the sons (or descendants) of Cunedda/Cunedag/Cunedagos. Cunogenus is more likely to be Cyngen, But even if if were referring to a *Cuno family, there were so many of them you couldn’t pick out Cunodagos specifically, I don’t think.

  10. sarah noon says:

    Hi tim, good to see you are doing well with your books. Will never forget camping in delamare forest in freezing snow in february all those years ago (more than 28 probably) – good luck for your future books you were always passionate about the subject,
    kind regards
    sarah – mother of 3 and grandmother of one darling boy!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Sarah. And you’re right about the chilly camping in Delamere Forest – it was February 1983 or 1984. Cardigans and slippers seem a more appealing option these days :)
      p.s. I’ll email you for a catch-up.

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